Tales from behind the camera
The unsung heroes of local cinema finally get due credit in an RTHK documentary
Despite facing its worst slump in recent years, the Hong Kong film industry has plenty to be proud of.
It has come a long way from black and white melodramas and the chop-socky kung fu epics of the 1950s and 60s. Today, Hong Kong action films are taking on Hollywood, spearheaded by directors like John Woo and kung fu star Jackie Chan. More recently Ringo Lam made his directorial debut with Maximum Risk, now showing in the territory.
And it is these professionals, especially the unsung heroes, that Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) will focus on in its 12-part documentary series, Dream Factory.
'It is our tribute to the people who have worked hard to make this industry a success,' said producer Stella Sze Kit-ling.
'We have a personal interest, of course. We are from the drama section so it's related to our field of work. But more than that, we realised that there have not been many documentaries done about these people.
'This is the 102nd year of cinema, and I guess we should have done it for the centenary but we were working on another project then. Still, it's better late than never.' The half-hour episodes, which start airing on ATV Home tonight, will profile people involved in different areas of film production.
Where others might make use of more old footage, the RTHK team will tell the story mainly through their interviewees. 'It is through their feelings and experience that we try to portray the frustrations and the joys,' explained programme director Ming Wai-yee.
Among the subjects lined up will be martial arts choreographers, assistant directors and fantasy films of the 1960s as well as profiles of directors Ann Hui On-wah and Stanley Kwan Kam-pang.
The seven RTHK directors involved have found their task more difficult than expected.
Used to producing dramas when they could control the agenda, the team found they had to acquire the adaptability and speed of a news team in order to seize every window of opportunity in their interviewees' busy and changeable schedules.
'Most of the time we had to make do with a digital video camera instead of bringing in the whole camera crew, because it took too long to book a full team,' said Sze, who directs the episode on Stanley Kwan.
For Albert Cheung Kin-wah, who filmed tonight's opening episode on Hui, the experience was 'a very lonely one'.
'I have never been on a job in another city alone before,' laughed Cheung, who spent seven days in Shanghai where Hui was making a film on the late author, Chang Ai-ling.
'I had to be the cameraman and the interviewer, and make sure that my voice would not mask hers,' he said.
'But I suppose, the good thing is without a camera crew around, she was more at ease since it was just like a casual chat instead of an interview.' Cheung, who worked as assistant director to Hui while she was with RTHK, is satisfied with how his episode turned out. In it, Hui expresses her feelings about Hong Kong and how things have changed since her early days of directing.
'My aim was to let people see the real Ann Hui through her own eyes, and perhaps help people understand a little about what a director really does.' In the same way, Frank Mak Kai-on hopes his episode will cast some light on the work of assistant directors.
Indeed, Mak thinks RTHK has something of a coup with his segment: the team managed to persuade the publicity-shy film veteran Chu Yat-hung to agree to an interview.
Sixty-something Chu, who has been an assistant director since she was a teenager, is a legend in her own time and was given a lifetime achievement award by the Hong Kong Film Festival committee.
Her life story was recently the subject of a play, The Chronicles of Light and Shadow, written by Ko Tin-lung of the Chung Ying Theatre.
The episode on martial arts choreographers (scheduled to air on February 9) might perhaps hold the most interest given the current preoccupation with action films.
Director Frank Fung Cheuk-lau plans to take his audience from the days when everybody was just kung fu fighting to the more explosive action of today.
Among the interviewees are Tung Wai, vice-president of the Stuntmen Association, kung fu master Lau Kar-leung and directors Ching Siu-tung and Yuen Bun.
'They are representatives of the different eras of the art,' said Fung.
'In Lau si fu's days, martial arts scenes were just that. You had to stand tough and fight. Then in the 80s, Ching Siu-tung introduced an aesthetic element to action scenes, especially for actresses like Lin Ching-hsia and Wong Jo-yin, who could not really fight.' Of course, stunts have become much more sophisticated and complex, combined with special effects such as fires and explosions, Fung added, as Yuen Bun had created in Lifeline, the recent movie about local fire-fighters.
'People think of stunt people as a rough and tough bunch. But they are often very polite and gentle.
'The problem is that you can't do very much in 20 to 30 minutes but I hope the audience will be able to see the true spirit of martial arts that these people represent.' Although the plan is for only 12 episodes, producer Sze hopes that they will be able to extend the project.
'Many people who were keen to take part had to turn us down because of a schedule clash or something else. I hope we can do another series so that we can feature them,' she said.
Dream Factory, ATV Home, Sundays 7.30pm